The Supreme Court said Thursday the government’s 2013 decision that outlawed a left-leaning teachers union was illegitimate, overturning earlier lower court judgments in a move that could help the group to win back its status as a legal trade union.
The ruling was a dramatic turn of events in a nearly seven-year feud between the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union and the Labor Ministry, which has accused the group of infringing on the labor law by having nine dismissed teachers among its members.
The 11-judge bench of the Supreme Court presided over by Justice Roh Tae-ak ordered a retrial of the case and sent it back to the Seoul High Court.
The legal dispute dates to October 2013 when the Labor Ministry notified the group, with some 53,000 members as of 2014, that it was no longer recognized as a legal organization due to the union’s repeated refusal to deny membership to nine fired teachers.
Judges said the government’s decision was unlawful as the enforcement ordinance the government cited for delegalizing the group is unconstitutional for “fundamentally restricting labor´s three primary rights” for organization, collective bargaining and collective action.
“Outlawing the union is not a simple deprivation of its position. It is tantamount to denying its existence” Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su said while delivering verdict.
Following the ministry’s notification in 2013, the union immediately filed a motion of injunction, requesting the suspension of effectiveness of its delegalization, in which courts ruled in favor of the group to retain legal status temporarily.
But the union faced a series of setbacks in following key legal battles, including a landmark ruling in June 2014 by the Seoul High Court that approved the government’s decision for outlawing the KTU. An appeal court also upheld the lower court’s ruling in 2016.
Losing the legal trade union status had dealt a great blow to the group, including preventing it from using the title “labor union” and engaging in negotiations with school authorities.
Founded in 1998, the teachers’ union became a legitimate organization the following year under the liberal government led by President Kim Dae-jung.
The KTU welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling and called on the government and the judiciary to apologize for “state violence.”
“The administrations of (former presidents) Lee Myung-bak and Park Guen-hye suppressed the KTU by exercising all of their national power,” the group said.
It also demanded to help teachers who were fired by their schools due to the government’s decision to get back to work.
Later in the day, the Labor Ministry said it would begin procedures to scrap the notification of the KTU’s delegalization as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the Labor Ministry has been pushing for a revision of labor law to allow dismissed workers to join trade unions in a bid to ratify the International Labor Organization’s key rights convention.
The government submitted legal amendments to the National Assembly on June 30 that stipulate that trade unions be allowed to autonomously determine qualifications for union members.
If passed, the progressive union would be able to win back its legal status regardless of Thursday’s ruling.
By Park Han-na (firstname.lastname@example.org)